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Guest column | James Pettican

Tampa trolley stokes Pittsburgh native's memories of Great Depression adventures

Tampa's streetcars are in the news these days and, once again, that brings back memories from more than 80 years ago. I have ridden them a time or two and enjoyed their lumbering but secure-feeling ride.

I was brought up in Pittsburgh and was a preteen in the depths of the Great Depression.

At age 11 or 12, I discovered the 25-cent Sunday trolley pass, for me, the price of a new Sunday adventure. Like other cities back then, my hometown had an extensive streetcar system.

Quarter in hand, I would board a trolley at the corner a half-block away from our house and be on my way to downtown, known at the Golden Triangle, the place where three rivers come together. Downtown was a 7- or 8-mile ride. It took us through Squirrel Hill, an affluent residential area, the university district, an industrial area known as Soho and, finally, downtown.

Downtown brought into view the county courthouse with its adjoining jail, skyscrapers and the big movie palaces of that era. When I had a nickel or dime in my pocket, I would disembark and wander around for a while. Sometimes, I would buy something to impress my siblings back home, all of them younger than I was.

While downtown, I would usually catch a glimpse of the big, black interurban streetcars. They were about the size of railroad passenger train cars and went to destinations 30 or 40 miles away. My grandmother had two sisters who lived on farms and she would ride the interurbans to visit them. Sometimes, during the summer or school holidays, she took me along and that was a super treat. The big cars ran swiftly and smoothly through the countryside and provided tales to tell my brothers and sisters when I got home.

Safety was never a concern back then for a preteen riding alone through the big city. Today's parents would probably veto the very idea and I wouldn't blame them for it.

Eventually, I found a solution for quarterless Sundays. The solution was Uncle Max. Married to a sister of my grandmother, he was actually my great uncle. He was a streetcar motorman who worked most Sundays. He had come here from Germany, had a gruff manner but a good heart.

He would tell me when to meet his trolley at a certain corner where I would board gratis. On those trips, I had to stay on board or be stranded somewhere. Still, it was better than having to stay home on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Somehow, the world seemed more compact back then. Without having to cross a street I could walk to several stores – meat market, grocery and confectionery. Our drugstore called for crossing one street, though, as did our trolley stop. Radios were our living room entertainment and our playgrounds were our backyards. Soccer moms were unheard of since most women didn't drive.

Some of today's builders try to bring back a bit of that world in places like Seaside and Disney's Celebration but their task is a tough one, particularly when there is limited mass transit. Meanwhile, we old folks still have our memories.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.

Tampa trolley stokes Pittsburgh native's memories of Great Depression adventures 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 5:22pm]
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